Traditional Homesteads Among the Luo of Kenya
What do they tell us about the people who live in them?

This essay will examine the traditional African homesteads, primarily focusing on the Luo people of western Kenya. The shape, location, and size of the huts and other structures in a traditional Luo homestead are like a book giving us important information about the people who live in the homesteads. We are interested in the nature of the Luo homestead. Also, we will examine how the homesteads have changed over time.

A Luo home or homestead, it is often said, is like a book – a book that tells you about the Luo culture, how the Luo view life, and how they view each other. More than 4 million Luo people live in Kenya, mainly in Nyanza, in the western part of the country Kenya. Several hundred thousand also live in the neighboring parts of Tanzania. The homesteads of the Luo serve as a window into the lifestyle that these people have developed over the last centuries in that corner of the world.

The Luo homestead, or the dala, as it is known in the local dholuo parlance, was very complex. It was made up of a compound where the owner of the “dala” and his extended family all lived. Everything that a Luo did in the dala, including the building of the dala itself, was done within the context of their rich culture. When you gazed at the homestead, you would think you were looking at several different grass-thatched huts scattered around the homestead, almost looking aimlessly and purposelessly strewn around. You would be wrong. These huts and other buildings within the homesteads were not there without a purpose or reason. If anything, each was built on the basis of traditional, long-cherished customs.

Each hut was constructed on a specific area within the compound reserved for it, each for a specific reason or reasons, each serving a different purposes for which it was built. The Luo homestead was by definition an extension of the owner of the homestead and his personality and his culture. You could be able to define the owner of the homestead by the way the homestead was built, where the huts were placed within the homestead, and “even down to the shape, sizes and colors of each hut located in the homestead.“

A visitor upon chancing on the homestead may simply see small and big grass-thatched huts. He may assume that the buildings were simple constructions for people to live inside the homestead and he may be right to some extent, but if he assumed that that was all there was to those buildings, he would be wrong. Those buildings were not just there as residences. There was more to them. They were also about the identities of the people who lived in the homestead. They were about how these people observed, celebrated, and memorialized their culture.

The various huts that were built in the compound had meanings and were structured so that those who entered the compound could automatically have an understanding of who the head of the homestead and the entire household were, who the first wife was, who the eldest son was, how many wives lived in the compound, among other things, and this was just by virtue of where the huts were situated within the homestead.

Those familiar with the Luo culture would, upon arriving at a Luo homestead, identify many aspects of the homestead and the people who lived in it. Just by looking at the huts, how they were arranged, how they were built, and where they stood within the compound, an uninitiated visitor might make erroneous assumptions about the homestead and the people in it; but, those familiar with Luo culture would immediately make accurate and conclusive deductions. The initiated sinecures of Luo culture would almost be able to make accurate deductions about the people in that compound. How many people lived in the homestead, their gender, their age, their occupation and profession, and sometimes even the families that live around that homestead in general could become clear just by gazing at the Luo homestead. The Luo homestead was therefore like a book giving you information about people who lived within it, and the neighborhood.

The shape of a traditional Luo homestead did not look like the typical European or modern American homestead. It was not rectangular or squarish in shape, but, rather, circular. Thus, most traditional Luo homesteads had a circular shape because a circle among the Luo represented or meant the center of being. The huts or buildings within the homestead were also supposed to be circular in shape, and were constructed carefully around this circular homestead. This meant that the main door to each of the huts was built facing the circle, enabling everybody within the compound to see into everybody else’s hut or building, who was going in, who was coming out, what went on in each hut, almost like a declaration of the need for transparency among members of the homestead.

Indeed, the Luo believed that the traditional circular shape of the homestead provided them with a sense of openness and transparency, which in turn led to respect, unity, and peace among members of each hut and the entire homestead. It was as if to say: we are all in this circle together, our huts are facing the circle, our fates are tied to one another, we must work together to ensure that the ties that bind this circle together are not broken. This ensured that everyone did their part in creating an environment of peace and tranquility within this homestead circle.

The Luo used hand tools to make or refine the materials needed for constructing their homesteads. The most basic construction materials for a new homestead were supposed to new, fresh, and had never been used in constructing previous buildings. This was believed to show the beginning of new life. Recycled materials could only be used later in constructing other secondary huts, but only after the first hut had already been constructed with fresh, new materials in the homestead. There were a lot of traditional customs attached to the process and the materials that were used for constructing a new homestead. The presence of the “thuon geno” [cockerel or rooster] and the eldest son of the homestead on the first day of homestead construction; of the alur [quail]; of modhno grass; of opea termites; and of many others played symbolic roles in the traditional beliefs pertaining to home construction among the Luo. These beliefs and customs had to be observed during the construction of a homestead.

Each of the huts had a meaning and was built in such a way that those who entered the compound could automatically discern where the main hut was, who the head of the household was, and where to go to see or talk to them. The main hut was also known as the first wife’s or “mikayi’s” hut. This hut was situated directly facing the main gate of the homestead. When entering the homestead, you could therefore immediately see the main hut, and those in the main hut could also see you entering their homestead. The location and stature of every other family member was defined in conjunction to the location of the main hut in the homestead.

In a polygamous homestead, the second wife’s hut was built to the right of the first wife’s hut. If there was a third wife, her hut would be built to the left of the first wife’s hut. The fourth wife’s hut would be built to the right of the second wife’s hut, and so on. There was a pattern to the construction of these huts. The sons of the wives in the compound also built their huts following a traditional pattern, whereby the first son (usually the first wife’s first son) built his home on the right side of the main gate to the homestead; the second son on the left side of the gate; the third son on the right side of gate; and so on. These clear and specific rules on where each wife and her children could place their huts within the compound helped to minimize or reduce frictions and complexities among members of a homestead, another clear indication of the Luo pursuit for peace and tranquility, but, even more than that, a demonstration of how any people lived in that homestead and their status. Thus, just by glancing at the homestead, you could be able to tell whether the male head of the homestead was polygamous or monogamous. If he was polygamous, the number of huts around the man wife’s hut could tell you how many wives he had.

Each hut was divided into different quarters defining where each member of the homestead could sit or sleep within his hut. You could not sit or sleep anywhere randomly inside a Luo traditional hut. There were, within each hut, specific spaces allocated for sleeping, eating, cooking, sitting and talking, storing food, holding pots, and keeping chickens and newly-born livestock. Each member of a family had his or her own separate sleeping and sitting spaces within the huts, each space showing their position and status relative to others within the homestead.

The male head of a polygamous homestead usually built a separate hut for himself and his own visitors could see or visit with him inside that hut. This hut, known as “duol,” was usually constructed between the first wife’s hut and “kul” [the cattle kraal or pen]. It was also usually smaller than the wives’ huts.

The “kul” was usually built in the middle of the homestead and this was show the importance of livestock among the Luo. As in many African communities, livestock served many purposes. They provided you with milk, beef, ands other important items for the homestead. The cow-dung could be used as a plaster material for building huts and protecting them the elements. The hides could used for making clothings and beddings. Livestock could be used as bride-price dowry to secure and marry a wife. The importance of livestock to this community could be discerned from the fact that they were kept in kraal [kul] situated in a central location within the homestead. The size of a livestock kraal could indicate the number of livestock in a homestead and therefore the wealth and stature of people within that homestead.

Apart from the wives’s huts, the “duol,” and the “kul,” there were other structures within the homestead that were vital to the Luo homestead and the culture underpinning their construction. These included the granaries, the courtyard, and the veranda, but the veranda, as one can see on some of the attached photos, was usually only found attached to the first wife’s hut. Granaries served as storage for food especially grains such as sorghum, millet, and beans. The number of granaries in the homestead demonstrated the wealth and status of the owner of the homestead. The owner of the homestead was required to bequeath each wife with a granary to support her and her children, and the more the granaries were there in a compound the more the wives a man was believed to have and able to support. The community frowned upon anybody taking on a wife he could not support. Thus, the more the granaries in a homestead, the wealthier the owner of the homestead was thought to be.

The sons in the homestead and their wives were not allowed to build or have their own granaries in the homestead. This could create unnecessary competition and friction among members of the homestead. Although the sons of the homestead could own their own huts, they were required to use the main granaries belonging to their own mothers for their food. Their own wives also depended on the granaries of their mothers-in-law for sustenance. This forced them to rely on the senior members of the homestead for their survival, to ask them for food, and to eat together with them. This system therefore forced the members of the homestead to depended on one another. It fostered unity. You realized that you could not survive without each other. Another feature of the homestead was the courtyard. The courtyard was a common space among the occupants of the homestead. It was used for many different purposes, usually for socialization, including sitting, entertaining, and playing.

The homestead was surrounded by a hedge or fence. This hedge was also circular in shape, mirroring the circular pattern of construction of the huts within the homestead. The hedge was to ensure protection and security of all those living in the homestead.

As already mentioned, the homestead consisted of the huts belonging to all the members of the family living in that homestead, including the eldest man (usually the head of the household), his wives and therefore mothers to his children, and his sons (both married and unmarried). These houses were also constructed around the homestead in such a way that they almost served the same purpose as the hedge–creating boundary around the compound, providing security to those living in the homestead. There were two openings on the hedge: the main one in front of the homestead facing the main hut, which served as the main gate and entrance to the homestead; and, then there was a smaller gate at the back of the homestead. These gates also served very specific purposes and nobody was allowed to contravene those purposes. For example the “in-laws,” those married to the daughters of the members of the homestead, were not allowed to use the small gate at the back of the compound. With a few exceptions, even members of the homestead were not allowed to use the small gate to enter the homestead. Only the male head of the homestead, his wives, and a few other people could use the small gate to enter or leave the homestead.

Everybody was therefore expected to use the main gate for entering and leaving the compound. There were a few exceptions where only the small gate could be used to get into or out of the compound. As already mentioned, the male head of the compound and his wives and a few other exceptional members of compound and the surrounding villages could use the small gate. On the other hand, if the male head of the homestead and any of his wives died outside the home, their bodies could only be brought into the compound through the main gate since they were the “permanent residents” of this homestead. The bodies of the sons and other family members could not be brought in through the main gate, but, rather, through a temporary opening made on the hedge of fence. These customs had to be obeyed by all members of the homestead.

Women were not allowed to build their own homes. Therefore, it was the man’s responsibility to build a homestead and the huts within it. This did not however mean that women were powerless in the homestead. Just like the main man of the homestead had his “duol,” the women also had their own huts which they controlled. For the most part, the women controlled the food preparation hut–the kitchen hut. Luo culture dictated that men were not allowed in the food-preparation hut or the kitchen hut. For a man to enter into this particular place in the homestead, it would be tantamount to disrespecting the women of the compound and showing that he did not trust them or like their food, or that he was absconding his duties and responsibilities as a man in the community.

Most Luo homesteads were given names, and the names were usually derived from the names of the mikayi, the first wife of the homestead. Thus you could have “ka-Nyasembo” [the Asembo’s daughter’s home]; ka-Nyaimbo [the Yimbo’s daughter’s home]; ka-NyaNyakacha [the Nyakach’s daughter’s home], and so on. This, once again, demonstrates that Luo women were not always as hopeless or helpless as depicted in most literature about them. Homes could be named after them.

Although most Luo homesteads were built to last for a long time, they typically did not last for more than two generations. In the words of one observer, the Luo homestead usually accommodated “huts for two generations and thus grandsons do not build their huts in this compound.” When the children grew up and were past puberty, the father was required to establish a new homestead in an entirely new compound away from the old homestead where he was born and brought up. Thus the process of building homesteads continued and expanded the reach, power, and influence of the whole community. The creation of new traditional homesteads every two generations ensured the survival of the Luo people and their culture for generations. It also enabled them to expand, migrate, and occupy new territories.

The homestead became vacant when the last parent in that homested died, and the land was converted and used for farming. The space where the homestead stood would no longer be used again for habitation until much later, once newer generations had emerged and probably did not know who used to live on that space. On the other hand, the huts became vacant immediately when the owner died or moved to another hut. Huts could never be handed down or inherited among the Luo. When the male head of the homestead died, the “osuri” [the main pole that stands straight on top of the grass-thatched roof] was removed from the huts of the wives of the man, symbolizing the death and permanent absence of the male owner of the homestead. This shows, once again, that you could tell whether the male owner of a Luo homestead was alive or dead just by looking for the “osuri” on the wives’ huts.

Traditional Luo homesteads have changed significantly since the coming of colonialism in Kenya and Luoland. The number of such homes, for example, has dropped particularly since the 1950s. Most Luos today are putting up modern homes and disregarding the traditional customs and beliefs that regulated the construction of Luo homestead and ensured order, peace, and tranquility among their members. There are several reasons for such changes. First, colonialism, education, Christianity, and the expansion of urban centers have meant that many young Luo men and women have drifted away from their homes where they no longer feel constricted by the traditional way of doing things. They have abandoned their culture and ways of building homes. Colonialism, urbanization, education, Christianity, and westernization have also led to the introduction of new beliefs, materials, processes, and ways of constructing homes that some Luos feel are better looking, more economical, and more modern than the customs of their forefathers.

The growth of Kisumu from a small market into a large city, for example, has led to many people moving from their rural Luoland homes to settle in the city. Many of these people no longer feel constrained by traditional customs. Indeed, the timeline of the expansion of Kisumu as a city has coincided with the decline of traditional homesteads around the city.

But, even as the traditional Luo homesteads give way to more modern homes, those that survive will continue serving as our book, our mirror, our lens into the Luo past and into their dwindling culture and lifestyle.

By Nathan Neal and Brian Jackson

Images

Aerial View of a Luo Village near Kisumu

Aerial View of a Luo Village near Kisumu: Kisumu, Kenya: The large mikayi hut is clearly visible in this Luo village with a hedge or fence made of trees, an enclosure inside the homestead that serves as kraal, and surrounded by small huts that serve as granaries. Clearly a wealthy homestead. American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, collections.lib.uwm.edu ~ Photo by Mary Meader, January 5, 1938

Luo Homestead Exhibit, Kisumu Museum

Luo Homestead Exhibit, Kisumu Museum: Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, https://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2769

Luo Homestead Exhibit, First Wife's Hut, Kisumu Museum

Luo Homestead Exhibit, First Wife's Hut, Kisumu Museum: This is an exhibition of the hut of the mikayi, the First Wife, within a traditional Luo Homestead. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, http://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2762.

Luo Homestead Exhibit, Granary of the Man, Kisumu Museum

Luo Homestead Exhibit, Granary of the Man, Kisumu Museum: Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, https://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2763

Luo House

Luo House: This photo shows an exterior view of a Luo home. ~ Photo by Philip E. Harding, 1983 | Washington University Library, http://cdm16786.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/buildings/id/1988 (Permission pending)

The Interior and Exterior Walls of the First Wife's Hut, Kisumu Museum

The Interior and Exterior Walls of the First Wife's Hut, Kisumu Museum: The Interior walls of a Luo hut, showing how the walls were created and textured. This is where chickens and newly born livestock could be kept at night, protecting them from the elements. ~ J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, http://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2768

Luo Homestead Exhibit, First Son's Hut, Kisumu Museum

Luo Homestead Exhibit, First Son's Hut, Kisumu Museum: This was how the first son's hut within a Luo homestead looked like. This structure is where the first son of the family would live starting from around age 14 or 15 years old. Notice that it was usually smaller than the other huts, especially the mother's. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, http://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2760

Artwork Depicting Setting Up a Homestead, Kisumu Museum

Artwork Depicting Setting Up a Homestead, Kisumu Museum: This outdoor mural at the Kisumu Museum shows the process of constructing a new homestead among the Luo: the man in the middle is on his way to construct his first homestead. He is sandwiched behind him by his father, the owner the homestead they are vacating, and led in front by his eldest son. The eldest son is holding an axe or mallet and a rooster/cockerel all regarded as important in the construction of a homestead. ~ Photo by J. Mark Souther, January 8, 2018 | Kisumu Archive, http://archive.macleki.org/items/show/2385

Map

Kisumu Museum, Busia Road, P.O. Box 1779- 40100, Kisumu City ~ One can learn about the nature of traditional Luo homesteads either by visiting an actual homestead, or going to the Luo Traditional Homestead Exhibitions at the Kisumu Museum, Kisumu, Kenya. The museum is located on the Busia road, just a few meters from the Kisumu-Busia Highway. The museum is on the opposite side of the Hare Krishna Temple, Kisumu. ~ http://www.museums.or.ke/kisumu/